The greatest sign of a visionary teacher, is that they impart wisdom so deeply into their followers, that the students are able to overcome previously insurmountable challenges without the presence of their guide. The pupils evolve into new hybrid creations, unleashing their personal abilities with the infusion of their old mentor’s teachings.
This mystical process of enlightenment is evident throughout life. Think of Mufasa training young Simba in the “Lion King” how to honorably rule the Pride Lands, or Yoda mentoring young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force, or even Dr. Dre teaching Eazy-E how to actually stay on beat while rapping.
In this same way, Andre Iguodala has been the sage exemplar by which the children of the Golden Empire have matured into the most feared rulers of the land. Sadly, he has been sidelined through the harshest stretch of the playoffs, due to a James Harden flop gone awry in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
After being unable to play in four straight WCF games and two Finals games, there is good news on the horizon for the former All-Star Iguodala as the Warriors head into Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals.
To truly understand how the Golden State Warriors have narrowly survived his absence this deep in the playoffs, we must first remember the foundation he helped set in Oakland.
Here are the lessons Iguodala has taught the Dubs.
Champions are selfless
In 2013, Iguodala first pledged his allegiance to Steph Curry and the Golden State. After seeing a glimpse of their growing powers while he was an opponent in the playoffs, Iguodala knew the future of basketball lied in Oakland. Since then, he has been a foundational part of the Warriors dominance.
Oakland’s very own Marcus Thompson II artfully broke down the intangibles of the Warriors first big acquisition in free agency, in his thrilling Curry biography, “Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry”:
“Iguodala is the analyst. He instinctually calculates percentags and measures angles. He’s got ten years of experience being a star player and defensive stopper, feeding his algorithm with data that repeatdly guides him into the right position.
He’s six-foot-six with a wingspan that stretches out five inches wider. He’s on the other side of thirty, but he is still a special athlete, chiseled and agile even if some of his explosion has tapered off over the years. But what makes him a weapon for the Warriors’ defense is his brain.
On top of his defense, Iguodala is a calming presence on offense. He was one of the few advanced ball-handlers the Warriors had. In the Death Lineup, he became a second point guard on the floor. He was never a natural scorer, more of a playmaker with the ability to handle the ball, pass, and finish at the rim...giving the Warriors the flexibility to turn Stephen Curry into a shooting guard and take advantage of his three-point stroke.”
Now, imagine a player with that combination of intelligence, athleticism, and ability being told to sit on the bench during his prime. Fading All-Star Carmelo Anthony LAUGHED when that was brought up to him as a possibility. Yet Iguodala’s graceful concession to coach Steve Kerr to become a bench reserve for the good of the team set the tone for the selfless ethos of team-first unity that has destroyed the NBA: “Strength In Numbers”.
Champions bounce back from adversity
In the 2015 Finals, the Golden Children were vying to become the eighth youngest team to win a title. In their way was the brick wall that is the greatness of LeBron James, who led his Cavaliers to a 2-1 deficit despite crippling injuries to Cleveland’s roster. The young Warriors looked unsure, frazzled, and overwhelmed by the physical force and attention to detail that is required in the championship round.
Enter Andre Iguodala, back into the startling lineup. In case you forgot, he took on the challenge of guarding James, and unlocked the Warriors small ball death squad for the first time. Per Matt Moore of CBS:
When Iguodala was in the game, LeBron James shot 38.1 percent from the field, scoring 26 points per 36 minutes with 2.9 turnovers. With Iguodala on the bench, James shot 44 percent, averaging 35 points per 36 minutes with 2.2 turnovers. With Iguodala as the primary defender, opponents shot 37.2 percent overall, and he gave up free throws the same percentage of time (10.8 percent) that he forced a turnover, via Synergy Sports.
Iguodala won the Finals MVP for his versatile efforts, and he showed the precocious Warriors the levels of mental focus and physical nastiness being a champion requires.
When James led the Cavaliers to overcome a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in 2016, it was partially attributed to Iguodala’s effectiveness being limited by severe back spasms. James ran through the Warriors with impunity; the Golden Empire had no answer for him with their wisest player diminished. The Cavaliers celebrated a Game 7 victory in Oracle that haunts Warriors fans to this very day.
With the addition of Kevin Durant in the 2016-2017 season, the small-ball lineup Iguodala unlocked turned into the “Hamptons 5” . The Warriors coldly embarked on a quest for redemption that led them to lose only ONE GAME in the postseason. They trounced the Cavaliers in five games, and guess which Warrior had the best plus/minus in the Finals? Iguodala.
While Durant’s Game 3 dagger ripped Cleveland’s heart out, it was Iguodala’s calculated risk on defense against James that effectively sealed an insurmountable 3-0 lead for the Warriors.
In the clinching Game 5 to win the title and exact vengeance on Clevland, Iguodala mortally wounded the Cavs with 20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists. #balling
Champions value possessions
Coach Kerr broke Iguodala’s impact down with Melissa Rohlin of the Mercury News:
“If I had to rank the smartest basketball players I’ve ever been around, I’d put him right there with Manu Ginobili and Scottie Pippen,” Kerr said. “He’s got that kind of basketball mind. He’s brilliant.”
“Our small lineup has been key for us in winning two titles, unlocking things,” Kerr said.” He’s the key guy because everybody knows the other guys are All-Stars. But the only way it works is if you have incredible intelligence on the floor on both ends because there’s so much that can happen when you play small. You have to cover for each other, you have to talk, you have to have guys who can do multiple things. Andre is the ultimate jack of all trades.”
Iguodala was ranked 10th in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.13. His posteason Ast/TO ratio is at 3.08 in 357 postseason minutes. For reference, eliminated Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul, much lauded for his brilliant passing and preternatural ball handling instincts, is barely ahead of him with an Ast/To ratio of 3.11 in 312 playoff minutes.
With Iguodala on the floor, the champs receive an elite boost in ball security. We know when the Warriors take care of the ball, they are unstoppable.
Now, for the Pop Quiz against Houston
The greatest test of the strength of Iguodala’s tutelage came, as it does for all great teachers, in his absence. This postseason, in the midst of a 41 point blowout of Houston that would put the Warriors up 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals, Iguodala went down with a bone bruise in his knee.
Iguodala’s inability to rejoin his teammates loomed large over the series. The Warriors promptly lost their mental edge, and Games 4 and 5. They came unraveled in the fourth quarters under an avalanche of poor shooting and turnovers.
Does anybody remember this short clip from a year ago, when Iguodala cryptically spoke of the Warriors true weakness?
Whatever that fatal flaw is, the Rockets seemed hellbent on figuring it out while Iguodala was sidelined.
Kerr reflected on Iguodala’s absence during the Houston series to the SF Chronicle:
I think one of the reasons we were a little scattered in the end of that Houston series was we didn’t have Andre playing that familiar point forward role, getting us settled, getting us into our offense.
Kerr also spoke to ESPN about the issues that arose without Iguodala’s calming presence:
Well, obviously, he’s a great defender, and he’s a guy I think he led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. If he didn’t lead it, he was right up there. You guys have heard me sing his praises for years. He’s an organizer. He’s a guy who settles us down. He continuously makes the right play.
The Warriors were able to claw out of a 3-2 deficit despite Iguodala missing with the knee injury, coming back from a 17 point deficit in Game 6, and a 11 point halftime deficit in Game 7. For the first time in the postseason against a dangerous opponent, these Warriors were able to survive without their “organizer”. They played intelligently on both ends; rotating with force, and maximizing possession opportunities in clutch moments.
After Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s assertion that Houston woulda won in 7 if the injured Chris Paul played, Kerr retorted that the Dubs would have won in 5 if Iguodala was healthy.
The “Finals” Exam: Breaking Cleveland Forever
The Warriors protected home court against the rival Cavs in the first two games of the Finals without Iguodala. Despite giving up 51 points to Lebron James in Game 1, the Warriors survived in overtime by playing smarter than Cleveland. (Thanks JR!)
In Game 2, the Warriors heavily used their bench to great success, while limiting the Cavaliers to 41% shooting. James still got 29 points, but he grew weary as the game wore on as the Warriors swarmed him with aggression.
So let’s review:
- Smart, resilient basketball down the stretch saves a narrow playoff victory in overtime.
- Bench players accepting their role, being ready and eager to contribute.
- Defensive aggression used intelligently to neutralize an opponent’s system.
Sounds to me like Iguodala’s DNA has been infused into this team, whether he is playing or not. That’s what makes the impending Game 3 battle in Cleveland so fascinating.
Historically, the Cavaliers play some of their best Finals ball in Game 3’s at home against the Warriors. When the Warriors struggle, it’s because they take poorly selected shots, turn the ball over, and get punked on defense. A locked-in Iguodala can be the salve for that.
Then again, maybe we should just rest him until the parade. The stairs up into those giant floats can get slippery from all that spilled champagne; do we really wanna risk the veteran's knee?
Even if he doesn’t return to play this series, the Warriors are proving that they understand how to synthesize the lessons he showed them into playoff domination.
If this is the case, this could only mean one thing: the Golden Empire remains the basketball dynasty whose fiery light spreads across the NBA landscape, burning rivals into dust, receding LeBron James’ hairline, and converting former Lakers fans into bandwagon disciples.